Chandran Rutnam first met Gamini Fonseka in 1956. Rutnam was one of the first to be hired for production work on Bridge on the River Kwai. His only qualification at the time was the fact that he was a serious film buff, willing to work for little or no pay. Rutnam was hired as a substitute assistant to Eddie Fowlie, the Property Master of the film until the official assistant arrived from London.
In Kitulgala, Rutnam was introduced to Dan Durairaj, Sesha Palihakkara, Vijay Abeydewa and Gamini Fonseka who had just finished working on Lester James Peries’ film Rekawa. Gamini Fonseka was assigned to the local Assistant Director’s Department.
Rutnam was introduced to Gamini by John Ericson, the English Second Assistant Director. When asked about his first impression of Gamini Fonseka, Rutnam said that they hit it off immediately. “We were both Thomians, Gamini from Mount Lavinia and I from Gurutalawa”, said Rutnam.
The duo developed a close friendship during the making of Bridge on the River Kwai.
Hailing from an affluent family Rutnam always had enough money to pay for his own food and drink. But Rutnam was given separate accommodation from the experienced Sri Lankan crew, which consisted of Dan Durairaj, Sesha Palihakkara, Vijay Abeydewa and Gamini Fonseka. He was an odd ball and it didn’t sit too well with the others.
“Gamini used to invite me to dine with him”, said Rutnam. The dinner cost Rutnam more than his weekly wage. “The production department liked me, but it was an awkward situation,” recalls Rutnam. Once after too many drinks Fonseka accommodated Rutnam in his chalet and that was against the rules.
By this time, Rutnam’s hard work and enthusiasm was highly appreciated. Gamini was questioned regarding the matter and he spoke in Rutnam’s defence, pointing out how absurd it was for him to stay in a hut while they lived in the chalets. Eddie Fowlie also endorsed a change in Rutnam’s scale of employment. “I was given a raise and a chalet of my own,” recalled Rutnam. They who lost touch when Rutnam left for London and to Hollywood after the Kwai shoot.
Rutnam and Fonseka met again after he had won a Best Actor Award. Rutnam was at the Galle Face Hotel when he heard a commotion. Fonseka was surrounded by a mob of cameramen. He was humble about having become an actor and they reminisced over drinks. In fact such reminiscences over drinks became a habit for the duo and the floor of Fonseka’s house with a table full of bites was an ideal venue. Fonseka had such regard for Rutnam that he once declined an invitation from President’s House so he could have dinner with Rutnam.
“DB Wijetunga was the President at the time and he politely declined his invitation,” recalled Rutnam with respect. The emissary sent from President’s House, to coax Fonseka into coming over to President’s House wound up having dinner with them.
When asked to describe the late Fonseka as a person Rutnam said: “Despite an enormous fan base, he was careful who he let into his inner circle of friends. His friends who knew him best loved him just as much. They admired his style and straight forward attitude, honesty and integrity. In fact, his reputation surpassed national and racial barriers with the likes of Rajinikanth wanting their own personal meetings with Fonseka.”
“The Tamil film Thee was being made in Colombo and the producers were looking for a large beautiful house. I suggested my Uncle Donald’s home in Barnes Place for a scene in the movie,” said Rutnam. After the scene Rajinikanth came over requesting Rutnam to take him to the legend that was Gamini Fonseka. That evening, Rutnam took Rajinikanth dressed in a black sarong and a black shirt, along with an older actress to meet Fonseka.
Fonseka hosted them for an hour and a half at his home in Ratmalana. “I took Rajinikanth back to his hotel. He thanked me profusely saying that it was the greatest moment,” said Rutnam. Afterwards Rutnam took Rajinikanth back to his hotel and remembers Rajinikanth thanking him profusely for the meeting, saying that it was the highlight of the whole trip to Colombo.
When asked how Fonseka was as a director, Rutnam admitted that he was a good director as well as a good actor. “He was a movie buff and would spend many hours talking about techniques in Hollywood movies,” said Rutnam. In fact, Rutnam revealed that Fonseka made serious directorial contributions to most of the movies he stared in. “He had the knack for making them feel comfortable, that the good acting was all their own and that his directing had nothing to do with it,” said Rutnam.
Fonseka had his personal favourites like Tony Ranasinghe, Malini Fonseka, Joe Abeywickrema, Lucky Dias, Veena Jayakody and Swarna Mallawarachchi. Cinematographer S. Vamadevan and Special Effects expert and director Dinesh Priyasad were also among his favourites.
When Rutnam was mulling over the idea of making a film on Fr. Matthew Peiris he realized that he and Fonseka had never done a film together, as director and actor in the lead role. “I asked Gamini to play Fr. Matthew. He agreed and we discussed the film, scene by scene”, said Rutnam. However this was not to be.
Rutnam had the opportunity of hosting Fonseka at his home just outside Los Angeles. Rutnam, his former wife Judy, son Daniel and Fonseka enjoyed having long conversations on many subjects. On his return, Fonseka wrote a poem thanking Rutnam for the memories they made.
Fonseka confided in Rutnam that he would like to spend his twilight years in Thousand Oaks in the salubrious surroundings, observing the animals and nature unfold. But this also was not to be.
“I was in Delhi on business and Gamini made three calls to my office when he was unable to get me on my phone. On my return to Sri Lanka I learned that he had passed away. Things would have been much different had Gamini lived,” says Rutnam.
They had grand plans not only for themselves, but the whole Sri Lankan film industry.